Burning Bright - Part 10

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'Burning Bright'

 

10. In the King's Hand

Mithlond
 

They passed through three checkpoints rather than the single one Erestor recalled and reached the South Haven late in the afternoon. Once there, he took the time-honoured route to finding Círdan; he went in search of Maeriel. They found her in her garden, explaining gravely to a small invasion of snails that no, they could not stay amongst her cabbages. 

“And why not, when it’s the best stocked vegetable garden in Mithlond?” Erestor asked, fetching a tired smile as she turned at the sound of their footsteps.

Her face lit up. “Erestor! And as full of nonsense as ever you were,” she exclaimed as she came to hug him, clearly delighted to see him home. Greeting concluded, she stood back to look him over before favouring Lindir with an enquiring eye. 

“I do not believe I have met your friend?”

Lindir had the kind of long-limbed, casual sexuality that roused the curiosity of both genders, and Erestor suspected not even Maeriel was immune. He hid a smile. “Lindir has a gift for Gil from the Lady. He’s a musician, a very good one. We met in Ost-in-Edhil.”

Maeriel studied Lindir as he bowed to her then nodded. “Well, I’m glad you had company on the road. Will you be staying here or across the bay? No one is using your old room and there is ample space for Lindir. Musicians are always welcome guests.”

Erestor considered the options, his brain moving at speed. Unlikely though it seemed, if he stayed at the palace he had a far better chance of avoiding Gil till he’d found his balance again. Círdan’s home lacked regal formality, meals were taken in the kitchen, guests shared the small garden, and the chance of Gil wandering over for a meal and staying to ask difficult questions was high… “I think I’ll start off over there, Maeriel,” he said, trying not to notice as her face fell a little. She liked a full house as she’d had on Balar. “I have reports to make, people to look up. When I’m ready for a rest I’ll come back here, if that’s all right?”

“The room will be there when you need it,” she assured him. “You’ll have a chance to get to know our new guest too then. I think he might like some company at the breakfast table now that Elrond has gone off to Eregion… ah, but you’d not know about that, would you?”

“We saw the army and I noted his banner, but there was no chance to speak to him,” Erestor told her, which was the literal truth, though had he been determined to speak to Elrond Eärendilion, he most certainly could have. “Would your guest be Glorfindel of Gondolin? The Lady had a letter from Gil just before I left, and she told me he was reborn and had been sent across the sea to us.”

“You were all the way over in Eregion and I still cannot surprise you,” Maeriel grumbled. “He always did know everything before anyone else,” she added to Lindir. “I never knew how he did this, he is the least likely to gossip of anyone I know. Good listener, my lord says. You’ll be crossing the bay with him then will you, Lindir? I had hoped I would be making dinner for a fuller table tonight. Your family’s on the other shore?”

“My family are in Forlond, my lady,” Lindir said, answering Maeriel with all the deference due to nobility despite her plain dress and lack of title, thereby giving Erestor time to get his face under control. Gossip was a touchy subject for him. “I have something to deliver to the king, after which I suppose I need to go home and let them see I’m still alive. I’m not the best correspondent in the world.”

“Musicians,” Maeriel said with a smiling shake of her head. “All the same. My brother was as bad. Well, I hope Erestor will bring you to visit next time you find yourself in Mithlond. May your errand go well. There’s a meeting in progress right now,” she added to Erestor. “If you tell them down at the ferry station that you have business with the Council rather than just Ereinion, they’ll send you straight across. Not that I’m advocating dishonesty, mind, but the next boat leaves with the tide, and that would be after star rise.”

~*~*~*~*~


The sun came out for a time and the water was calm. They made the crossing almost in silence, Lindir holding the bag containing the harp on his lap, his eyes on the approaching cityscape. On the road, Erestor had resisted the temptation to open Galadriel’s pouch. It was still where he had placed it during their first rest stop, sewn into the lining of the jerkin he had worn every day for the entire journey. He promised himself that his first act once he had given his report would be to burn the thing: he never wanted to wear it again.

The palace looked more or less as it had when he left, which for some reason surprised him. He felt as though he had been away for half a lifetime, not a mere century. There were new paintings on walls, furniture had been changed or moved, but the floor tiles were the same, as were the vaulted ceilings with their intricate moulding at centre and along the edges. He only took one false turn in search of Arvarad’s offices, and still had no difficulty in terrorising a page into calling him out of a full-blown Council meeting.

Radiating irritation, Arvarad came back in the page’s wake and stopped dead to stare. “Manwë’s orc!” he exclaimed. “What cat dragged you in?”

“Missed you too. You haven’t changed a bit – more’s the pity,” Erestor said with a grin. They clasped forearms and exchanged further insults before Erestor grew serious. “We need to see him privately, how long will the meeting run?”

“Could be another hour, perhaps a bit less,” Arvarad said with a shrug, trying not to stare at Lindir. “I could hurry things along. What’s this about – news out of Eregion? He’s been worried.”

“News, something the Lady wanted him to have --- something very sensitive. He might want to be careful who he invites along.”

“Círdan’s here. And Lord Glorfindel. And Callonui...” Callonui was Lindon’s senior general, Erestor was half surprised he had not gone with Elrond.

“Círdan, you - Callonui, yes. What’s the Reborn like?”

There was a pause as Arvarad considered. “Different? Quiet, thinks before he speaks. They get along well. He’s living over the bay.”

“Maeriel mentioned, yes. All right, Gil will make his own choices. Just tell him he’ll be sharing his aunt’s secrets with whoever he brings. This isn’t a tale for after dinner entertainment, it needs discretion.”

“And…?” A cool glance flicked to Lindir then back to Erestor. 

“He’s with me,” Erestor explained briefly. “He’s – part of the message.”

Arvarad rolled his eyes. “She gets more complicated as the years pass. All right, well you’d best not wait here. Come on, let’s find somewhere out of sight till he can get away. I’ll fetch you when it’s time.”
 

~*~*~*~*~


“You’re important, aren’t you?”

Erestor contrived to look puzzled. “Me? No, I just
know people who are very important. There’s a big difference. And if you know how things work, you can get almost anything done.”

“Like getting a ride across the strait an hour before the next ferry’s due to run, yes.”

Erestor shrugged. “Exactly. It’s nothing to do with who I am, it’s who might later overhear me mention they weren’t very helpful down on the dock.”

They were in a little antechamber, neatly laid out with comfortable chairs, a vase of flowers on a low table, even a good rug on the floor. It had no discernable personality and looked like a waiting area for people perhaps not accustomed to waiting long, if at all. Erestor had never seen it before, but Arvarad had thought it sensibly out of the way. 

Lindir pulled a face. “You’re doing the talking later, right?” He had a performer’s self-confidence, but kings and reborn heroes lay outside of his experience.

“Since when were you worried about speaking for yourself?” Erestor felt tired and knew it was starting to show. Something to do with this being the end of his mission, he supposed, with having to start joining reality to memory. And Gil. Eventually he would have to deal with Gil. 

Before Lindir could answer, Arvarad came hurrying in amidst a swirl of brown robes. “Right, he’s ready now. This way, he’s in that robing alcove off the throne room.”

“Well, that’s private enough,” Erestor agreed. Getting to his feet, he rested a hand on Lindir’s arm and said quietly, “And you’ll have no trouble talking for yourself. It’s Gil, he’s the easiest person in the world to talk to when he sets his mind to listening.”

They followed Arvarad on a roundabout route that brought them out into a large, echoing room with tapestry-hung walls and an immense chandelier, glittering with crystal. High-arched windows ran the length of the wall opposite the throne, a blue-cushioned construction of ebony wood inlaid with gold and mithril. Neither Arvarad nor Erestor paid much attention, though Lindir shot a few glances around, trying to memorize the room as they hurried through, their footsteps ringing on the highly polished floor. 

Heavy drapes cloaked the wall behind the throne, serving the dual purpose of creating a deep blue backdrop while at the same time concealing a small door. Arvarad headed straight for it with them on his heels and rapped sharply before opening it. He entered first, but Erestor paused and rested his fingers on Lindir’s arm again. He gave the musician a quick, searching look and said low, “There was no dark elf, remember.”

“What dark elf?” Lindir asked blandly.

“Precisely. No idea,” Erestor agreed with a tiny smile that tried but did not entirely manage to hide a sudden rush of nerves.

The robing room was so small it would seem crowded even when empty. All available space was taken up with presses for the royal vestments, a shoe stand, a chest for accessories, a table with one chair. A shelf held empty stands used to display crowns and circlets, currently residing in the treasury where they belonged. The only window was a narrow strip up near the ceiling, and lamps had been lit, giving sufficient light to read by.

Callonui sat on the chest, deep in conversation with Círdan, while Gil-galad perched on the corner of the table, casually dressed but wearing the mithril circlet he preferred for regular business like Council meetings. He was talking quietly to a tall, broad-shouldered elf with bright hair that gleamed in the lamplight. Laurefindilë - golden-haired, Erestor thought randomly, recalling a book he had once read on the twelve Great Houses of Gondolin.

Gil-galad rose at once and came towards them. “Best close the door and hope we don’t all suffocate. What possessed you to pick this place?” he said to Arvarad. Without waiting for an answer he took Erestor’s hands and looked down at him, his smile welcoming. “Well met, Erestor. It’s been far too long.” Their eyes held for a long moment, and Erestor was reminded once again of how piercing that pale blue gaze could seem. He was relieved when Gil released his hands with a brief squeeze and turned to Lindir. “And this is…?”

“This is Lindir, Sire, a renowned musician from Ost-in-Edhil. He has family in Forlond,” Erestor said formally, finding his court manners still reasonably intact after his sojourn from home

The ‘renowned musician’ slanted an eyebrow at him, but Lindir’s social skills were nothing if not well-honed. He bowed to his king and went straight to business, as he had heard was Gil-galad’s preference. Drawing the lap harp from the bag, he held it out carefully. “Your Majesty, the Lady commended me to you and asked me to place this in your hands.”

It was the first time he had handled it since he played Badger’s guide price, and Erestor could see his hands were uneasy on it even now. Out the corner of his eye he noticed something else; the tall, grey-eyed elf who he assumed was Glorfindel of Gondolin had drawn a sharp breath and was watching the harp intently as though attempting to read secrets in the decorative carvings. They had spent weeks with it, but that look made him wonder if whatever power resided within spoke with a louder voice than he and Lindir could hear.

Lindir had to nudge him to get his attention back to Gil-galad, which would have been funny under other circumstances. “We were told to give you the harp first,” Erestor said hastily, “and that there’s – something hidden in the base. But you might get more sense from it after reading the report. She said everything you need to know is here...”

He unfastened the padded jerkin worn over his shirt while he spoke, tugging stitching loose from the lining to extract a flat pouch. This he passed to Gil-galad. “I can answer some questions, probably not all. Things will already have changed in Eregion, but I can tell you that the Lady and her family left at the same time we did, and that people had been moving west for weeks. And she sends you her love.”

Gil-galad opened the pouch one handed, the other held the harp casually against his side. He tipped the contents onto the table, picked up the report and began to read, his eyes skimming over the words.

“We have noticed the influx, yes,” Círdan commented dryly to fill the pause. “No one seems to have any explanation beyond rumours of approaching armies and a strong urge to get back home here where it’s safe. Not very useful. You’re well, Erestor? Not a good time of year for travelling.”

Erestor shrugged. “The Lady picked the time, not I. She said a dream spoke to her. She instructed us to return here, then she, Celebrían and Celeborn went their own way.” He thought they had been heading for the pass over Caradhras, but kept that to himself. If Gil asked it would be time enough to speculate on the Exile’s destination.

Gil-galad was reading slowly now, glancing up occasionally as Erestor remembered he did when he wanted to assimilate something. When he finished his voice was taut with barely contained anger. “What in the Pit possessed them not to tell me any of this before? Couldn’t they see that this was no casual villain they were dealing with.”

“I think it was about autonomy and Celebrimbor’s belief he could contain the threat,” Erestor said into the startled silence. “Almost till the end he thought Annatar only menaced Eregion.” The name came naturally to him, easier to use it than to admit the real one and be faced with the full horror of his memories. 

Gil-galad nodded curtly, his eyes now on the harp. “And this?”

Erestor glanced around the room: Cirdan, Arvarad, who he and Gil had known since Balar, and Callonui, whose loyalty was beyond question. And Glorfindel. “She said to have a care who you shared this with, that all our lives may depend on that discretion.”

“Yes, yes, there’s no one in this room I don’t know or trust. I suppose you can speak for your friend here?”

Erestor surprised himself by wanting to fly to Lindir’s defence as though he had been slighted. “He understands about whatever the harp carries better than I do, Sire. It’s been with him night and day, he even played it once. The Lady chose him for a reason, I think.”

“Hmph.” Gil-galad turned the harp around and scrutinized the base carefully, feeling along it with curious fingers. There was a sense of power shifting and moving in the room, of something that had slumbered now stirring, taking note of where it found itself. The air seemed to shiver. Looking around Erestor could see it was affecting them all similarly, all except Lindir. Too well acquainted with whatever the harp concealed, he had stepped back a few paces. Glorfindel, reborn legend, stood outwardly relaxed but with a waiting air. He was making Erestor just a touch nervous.

“There’s no mechanism, Sire,” Lindir ventured quietly from close behind him. “I would have found it. Very little on a harp remains untouched, what with testing the tuning and then movement while it’s being played. The Lady said this was a gift from Maglor himself, so I would hesitate to harm it, but in these old harps the pieces slot together perfectly, no need for pins and glue, and time all but binds the wood and metal together. Unless you turn it just so, I think you might need to break it.”

Gil-galad had begun looking for some kind of leverage when Glorfindel stepped forward. “May I?” he asked quietly. Erestor had to fight to keep from objecting, but Gil-galad seemed to find nothing untoward in the request. He passed the harp over and Glorfindel studied it carefully, all the while running his hands over it. 

“I used to play,” he said thoughtfully. “Once when I was a boy I broke the practice harp my tutor kept for my brother and I. He was furious. I think – here…“ A twist of the wrist, a slide of muscle under skin, muscle that had been the match of a Balrog, and the base hung loose at one side. “I never forgot that, nor that part of the base is always hollow – it aids the sound.” 

He placed it on the table and stepped back. Frowning, Gil-galad shook the harp gently and something wrapped in paper fell out, bouncing onto the table. Erestor found he was holding his breath and made himself relax. Gil-galad picked up the tiny parcel carefully, his expression impossible to read, then moved so that his body shielded whatever it was from view as he unwrapped it. There was not a sound in the room when he turned back, staring down at his cupped palm before opening it to show them what he held. 

Sapphire and ruby gleamed in the lamplight, clasped in rings of silver and gold. They shimmered with an inner fire, the air around them seeming almost to dance and pulse. It took Erestor more than one attempt to find his voice. “She said to tell you that Celebrimbor gifted her with the third, and that it’s as well they be held apart at this time. And that it should be safe where she’s going. I had no idea what she meant…”

“She mentioned three, yes.” Gil-galad’s attention was back on the rings, which he held as though their weight was somehow greater than their size indicated. 

“So she’s taken one for herself?” Glorfindel murmured. It was impossible to tell if his voice held approval or opprobrium.

Gil-galad shrugged very slightly. ”Finwe’s granddaughter. Had she been born a boy, you would have been discussing this with her now instead of me.”

“What are these?” Círdan asked, more interested in facts than a discussion on the incomprehensible Noldor practice of allowing only male heirs to wear the crown.

“Galadriel says they experimented with rings of power under Annatar’s tutelage. He claimed to have studied with Aulë himself and she could not fault him in this,” Gil-galad explained, setting out the facts as Círdan had taught him when he was still very young. “Then, working alone, Celebrimbor made three rings whose power is beyond anything ever created by an elven smith this side of the Sea. Of all the rings, they alone never knew Annatar’s touch.” 

He moved them, watching them catch fire from the light, then went on, his voice soft, almost questioning. “She says there is another ring, forged by Annatar, something of indescribable power. The One, she calls it. Through it he seeks the Three and with them his power would be so immense no one could withstand him… possibly not even the Valar themselves. Annatar is no renegade Vanyar as we’d suspected, she says. He was once called Sauron and served as Morgoth’s first lieutenant. And he is very angry.”

“What have we sent Elrond into?” Círdan asked, low-voiced. “An under-strength army, no solid intelligence...”

“Where did Galadriel go?” Glorfindel directed his question at Erestor. Their eyes met, held until Erestor shrugged and looked away. Legend, yes. His lord to answer to? No. His expression must have been eloquent because Glorfindel made a mollifying gesture. “I’m sorry, concern for her makes me blunt. Did she say why she thought it best not to bring the third ring here as well?”

“In case Lindon is overrun,” Gil-galad answered for him sombrely. “We can’t know if that was foresight or just plain common sense, and we can’t afford to take chances. Callonui, I want the watch trebled at every crossing point along our borders. From here on, we must regard Lindon as being in a state of war. See to it now. Your dinner can wait.”


~*~*~*~*~


Extra watchers were deployed to the border crossings, and an urgent appeal produced a modest increase to the ranks of the army. The numbers were less than Gil-galad wanted although more than Círdan, at least, had expected. As for the Shore Lord himself, he spent long hours with his mariners, overseeing the strict coastal patrol which had been put in operation the day of the Rings’ arrival. 

Glorfindel had no more to do than before, but it troubled him less now he understood why he had needed to remain in Mithlond. Every waking moment he could feel the presence of the rings that rested in the High King’s care, feel the quiet, coiling power that was the essence of Arda’s energy, waiting to be directed, mastered. He wondered what the one Galadriel held was like. These two spoke of fire and air, and knowing his kind the third would resonate to the element of water. He thought that would suit her. Water was deep, powerful, unstoppable, like the sea that ruled all those who dwelt beside or sailed upon it.

Círdan had been a mighty lord in his time and from the start Glorfindel had thought there was more than a little guile mixed in with practicalities when he chose the south side of the bay for his own. Anyone making a hurried return to Mithlond from the lands east or south of Lindon would find the route to his holding swifter and simpler than travelling down to the river crossing that served the city. This meant most of the more interesting or urgent news reached his ears first. And so it was when the couriers sent to Celebrimbor returned.

A string of racing horses and their own fear had lent them a speed previously unknown on the route between Ost-in-Edhil and Mithlond. They arrived before first light, when the dawn star ruled the sky, coming down from the Emyn Beraid through Círdan’s holding at a speed incautious for both horse and rider. The sound of their arrival woke Glorfindel, always a light sleeper and more so since his rebirth, and the early hour lent strength to his sense of impending disaster. 

On impulse he rose, dressed swiftly in a loose robe belted casually at his hips, and hurried downstairs alert for lights or the sound of movement. Maeriel’s voice, soft in the early hush before the birds woke, halted him as he was about to step outside. “My lord has taken them across the water himself.” She always called Círdan that, never by name. Glorfindel wondered abstractedly what she called him in the privacy of their rooms. “Eregion lies under attack, the city of Ost-in-Edhil has been taken. They have no word of Elrond, nor of the army.” 

She was standing in shadow, her thigh-length hair loose around her shoulders. Her face was calm and grave. “I have seen a city burn,” she said. “It is truly a terrible, terrible thing. But then, so have you. You would know this. They say Celebrimbor was taken, though how they know I cannot say, nor whether he is dead or alive.”

Glorfindel felt the world adjusting to the strange, awful shape of the future. “I need to hear what else they have to say,” he told her, purpose making his words clipped and definite.

She shook her head. “There will not be another ferry until morning light. Best join me in the kitchen for tea. It’s as good a way as any to wait for news.”

~*~*~*~*~


Chance brought Glorfindel to the palace sooner than he had hoped. Círdan came back to retrieve the notes and drawings still stored in one of the couriers’ packs and he had simply followed the Shipwright back to the ferry, talking casually as though it was the most natural thing in the world. By the time Círdan started wondering why he was still there, they were half way across the strait and it was too late. 

Glorfindel liked to believe guile did not come naturally to him, but he had learned a lot from watching Maeglin. He was starting to wonder if this might be one of the reasons he was chosen for this mission; Lord Námo knew hearts, the suggestion may have come from him.

“They’ll keep him alive and force him to say where the Three are,” Arvarad declared matter-of-factly. “After that they’ll kill him, of course.”

“They won’t get a word out of him.” Gil-galad stated. “Too bloody minded.” It was more than an hour since the messengers had been taken across to the palace and the king woken to hear them personally, and he was still rumpled from sleep, his hair unbound, a motley selection of clothing thrown on in haste.

“Any man will talk in time,” Círdan said quietly. “Some can withstand more pain than others, but each of us has his breaking point.”

“Not Celebrimbor.” Erestor’s tone was as flat as Gil-galad’s. “He would chew his arm off before he gave up the pride of his craft.” 

Erestor had his black hair tied severely back from his face, accentuating his cheekbones and those heavy lidded eyes. He had also been woken before dawn, apparently in his own bed if his reference to a short cut through the kitchens was anything to go by. This told Glorfindel that whatever the state of Erestor’s friendship with Gil-galad before he left for Eregion, it had not been resumed on his return. Yet. 

Arvarad, his eyes on Erestor, pursed his lips and nodded. Glorfindel had been wording his question with care and offered it now. “What of Galadriel? Do we have any idea if he knew enough to say where she was headed?”

“He’s Fëanor’s grandson,” Gil-galad replied. “He’d protect the work of his hands beyond common sense, as Erestor said, and he would never betray my aunt. Never. She’ll be safe enough. Sauron might guess the rings were sent here, but he has no reason to suspect they were divided. And for torture to be any use, you need to ask the right questions.”

Erestor gave him a startled look, but Glorfindel nodded, less surprised. In his experience, kings were supposed to know about such things.

~*~*~*~*~

Part 11

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Beta: Red Lasbelin